The Evolution of Advertising Design and What You Can Learn From It

Read about the most important moments in the evolution of advertising design and what you can learn from them.

Marketing design
June 29, 2021

Table of Contents

Here’s a brief history of advertising, with notable examples and lessons you can still implement in your marketing strategy today.

From the first newspaper ad to viral video ads on the Internet, the advertising industry has come a long way. However, there’s a lot to learn from the history of advertising, as you can still adapt these older strategies to fit the needs of your marketing efforts today.

In this piece, we’ll take you through the evolution of advertising design and its importance today. We’ll use some iconic ad examples for lessons that still apply to modern-day advertising.

Types of advertising design

Before we get into the evolution of advertising, it’s important to note what different types of advertising design developed over time and what new things, generally, they brought to the marketing arena. In this respect, it’s also useful to be clear on the difference between marketing and advertising.

Marketing is the process of preparing your product for the marketplace. This might include market research, identifying customer needs and coming up with a service or product that best matches those needs.

Advertising is a step in the marketing process, where you make your products known to prospective customers. Here are some of the main types of advertising design you should know about:

  • Brand design: in your efforts to build brand awareness, your logo and your brand guide are necessary advertising assets.
  • Print, merchandise and packaging: brochures, flyers, business cards, uniforms and of course the branded packaging of your products are all used for promotional purposes.
  • Broadcast and print media ads: television, radio or ads in newspapers or magazines.
  • Digital advertising design: includes display ads and video ads that aren’t shown on social media
  • Outdoor ads: such as billboards, posters, shop signage or bus stop shelter ads.
  • Event ads: branded stalls, or rollups, banners or giveaways for specific events.
  • Social media ads

Old newspaper ads: typography design matters

Some forms of advertising existed even in ancient Egyptian times and the oldest print ad dates from 1472, but it’s safe to assume that modern advertising began during the industrial revolution. The print industry meant a wider-reaching media and information, which also meant being able to advertise or sell products more effectively and to a wider range of people.

Before the newspaper industry had access to more advanced printing technologies (e.g. printing in color), advertisers relied heavily on copy text to do the selling. Naturally, it can be hard to stand out with text alone. So a design hack they used, which is still very much relevant today, is to combine different fonts, and different font sizes to draw the reader’s attention and highlight the most important points.

old newspaper ads.jpg

Tech Crunch

It’s important to remember that internet advertising has a much more focused audience than traditional advertising channels, so it pays off to be different. You want to create an ideal response with your ideal buyer, so you’re better off replacing drab slogans with something more powerful and unique. Aim to educate and empower, rather than just making a one-off sale.

This simple video ad celebrates the diversity of Airbnb’s community and the company’s inclusive values. The powerful lesson from both of these ads is that you shouldn’t just try to sell a product but rather create a community of consumers around shared values.

ebaums World

Of course, the lesson learned with these designs remains relevant today, and not just for children either. Mascots give brands more personality and make them more memorable. A more contemporary example is the Duolingo owl. It started out as a cute mascot but thanks to meme culture and the app’s incessant lesson reminders, it got a whole different personality. However, even this new “dark” side of the mascot works perfectly (if not better) for the apps audience of young adults, so the company probably isn’t going to change their mascot anytime soon.

Retro Planet

With television becoming more widely accessible, another big change was that younger audiences (including kids and teenagers) became exposed to mass advertising. And what do children respond to well? A loveable character!


Ignoring the fact that seeing an ad on TV (which very few people had access to) was impressive in itself, there are many reasons why this ad is so great. Like with any modern ad, you’d need to take context into account. The ad aired in the midst of World War II, so the ad’s strong patriotic sentiment must have resonated really well with people (one country, one time). Secondly, it presents the viewer with just two powerful images: a country and the watch.

The first TV ad: powerful visual storytelling

The first-ever TV ad aired in 1941, lasted about 10 seconds and included one single spoken sentence. The company behind it was the US watchmaker Bulova.

The 1960s: loveable characters

The period of about 20 years between the 1960s and 1980s is considered the Golden age of advertising, and if you’re a fan of the show Mad Men, you might have an idea why. From the scarcity of ads in the previous decades, the 1960s brought more creativity, design and storytelling to ads than ever before. It wasn’t just about a catchy slogan anymore - designs needed to tell a story that people will respond to.

campbells soup old ad.jpg

This era saw the birth of many iconic mascots such as Tony the Tiger, Wendy and Ronald McDonald.

duolingo memes.png

Coca Cola: inclusivity matters

Again, if you’re a fan of Mad Men, you’ll probably remember the iconic ending where Don gets “his” Coca Cola “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” ad idea. In reality, this one is a staple of advertising history for many reasons.

The idea came brom Bill Backer, who was at the time the creative director for the Coca Cola account at McCann advertising agency. The story goes that he had been inspired by seeing people on an unexpected layover during their flight to London, coming together and making connections - over a drink of Coke.

The idea was that Coke wasn’t just a refreshing drink: it was a bridge between people. Moreover, the TV commercial itself tapped into what had been a global phenomenon at the time, the hippie culture. Finally, it’s also the first instance of the record industry merging with the advertising industry, since the song created for the ad was performed by The New Seekers, a popular British group at the time.

Although we’re perhaps moving away from these overly cinematic and slightly sugary style, the messages that this iconic advertisement campaign sent are still relevant. Airbnb has a powerful slogan “Belong anywhere”, which captures the brand’s mission to help people find temporary homes (as opposed to just accommodation) wherever you go.

Celebrity endorsements

After the top notch design and catchy slogans it was time to take advertising to the next level. As the TV and movie industry became more global than ever, celebrity status also became recognized worldwide.

One of the most memorable ad campaigns from the time is “Got milk?” which was launched for the California Milk Processor Board. But it’s not just about seeing celebrities advertise a product—it had already been seen a thousand times before the 1993 campaign and would be many thousands more since.

It was the idea of turning a bland, everyday household product, usually associated with kids, rather than adults, into a huge global trend. Although the campaign ultimately failed to actually sell more milk, this can hardly be seen as a marketing failure. The consumption of milk had been decreasing for years, and with healthier plant-based alternatives this trend continued. However the campaign itself was so successful that tis tagline launched numerous spinoffs and eventually became public domain

got milk 1.jpg
got milk 2.jpg

The Internet and creating for an ideal audience

The Internet was a game changer in several areas of our lives, including advertising and marketing. The first display ad appeared as early as 1994, as a small banner ad. Around this time, email advertising also had its big moment (who can remember the tons of spam emails our parents used to get?).

The real change came post 2000, when ad targeting became an inseparable asset of online advertising. Instead of splurging money on ads that millions of people could see, but only a handful would care about, the Internet provided marketers a way to spend less and get more from it, but selecting who will see their ads. Google launched AdWords (now Google Ads) in 2000 and introduced quality-based ranking 2002. A few years later, YouTube was launched (2005) and with it came video ads (2006).

So why exactly are video ads so different than traditional TV ads? Well, the first is search engine optimization and different technical tricks that allow people really interested in a product or service to see such ads. Secondly, the space online is much bigger and cheaper. Whereas a minute on TV costs a fortune, with YouTube you’re free to create an ad as long as you like it.

One of the most famous examples is Dove’s 2013 Beauty Sketches ad, that came to be the most watched YouTube ad of all time. The full-length ad is much longer than a regular TV ad (around 6 minutes), and there is a shorter version of 3 minutes. The reason why this ad was so successful is that it wasn’t a conventional ad people had been used to. Instead of selling, it aimed to tell a story and empower the company’s clients.

Social media advertising

Finally we get to what is one of the most dominant forms of advertising today: social media. Why is it so effective? Multiple reasons. But in essence, social media is your private corner of the Internet, that advertisers are free to invade. Browsing through social media creates the illusion of custom-made content we “preapproved” ourselves, when in reality you’ll also see plenty of ads there.

Next, the biggest evolution of advertising, when it comes to social media, came with the move from monologue to dialogue. Social media platforms allowed companies to engage and interact with their customer, and provided their clients with an opportunity to share their experiences about a service or product. Since people are far more likely to trust referrals over ads, this became one of the most successful marketing techniques. And best of all - sometimes it doesn’t have to cost a penny!

It’s well known that Apple prides itself on impeccable design and cutting-edge features. But how about a campaign that shows their product in action? The #ShotOniPhone campaign was a great way to engage Apple users and perhaps convince reluctant non-customers of the superior nature of Apple’s products.

apple instagram.jpg

Although the buzz around the campaign was created on social media, it was even more powerful as it used social media content in real-life settings: to portray just how high-quality the new iPhone camera was.

User generated content is showing no signs of stopping and for good reason. It’s cheap and increases companies’ trustworthiness. Finally, it builds on the messages and aims of earlier advertising efforts of creating a community around a product or service.

Where can you get ad design?

As you can see ad design in modern times encompasses numerous different formats, which can be difficult or expensive to produce. If you have the money for it, hiring a marketing or design agency can be a great way to get all the high quality assets you need.

If, however, you can’t afford to work with an agency, there are a number of ways to get designers with different skills to create the best ad assets for your next campaign. You can always hire freelance designers, but this can be costly and time-consuming in the long run. An affordable and much simpler alternative is an unlimited graphic design service like ManyPixels, that takes care of all your design needs for the same flat rate every month!

Having lived and studied in London and Berlin, I'm back in native Serbia, working remotely and writing short stories and plays in my free time. With previous experience in the nonprofit sector, I'm currently writing about the universal language of good graphic design. I make mix CDs and my playlists are almost exclusively 1960s.

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